Lucky Montana has introduced an entirely new dimension to train travel in South Africa.
As chief executive of the Passenger Rail Agency (Prasa), he announced there was no guarantee that a train would reach its destination.
There is nothing to stop you catching a train, of course, if one turns up. Many don’t, because they have been cancelled, in which case your station is the destination they don’t reach.
But assuming a train does arrive and you board it, where you might end up depends on a sort of railway roulette. It could be anywhere, or nowhere.
And nowhere, my esoteric books tell me, also means you are “now here”, which is where you always were in the first place. But philosophical musings such as this don’t offer much consolation if you are fired for being continually late for work or not arriving at all.
I can imagine standing at the ticket office and being asked: “Where to?”
Me: “Well, where would you suggest?”
“No man, what station do you want buy a ticket to?”
“That depends on what station I can reach. Apparently there is no guarantee. I don’t suppose you have a ticket for those to whom the journey is the object, not the destination.”
“I beg yours?”
Having used the Southern Suburbs line man and boy, I have a proprietorial interest in all this. Montana says Metrorail’s coaches are 40 years old and need replacing, but I preferred the ones they had even before then, with burnished wood interiors and clickety-click doors that opened to every second compartment.
Many of the ticket examiners got to know me and one actually held up the train at Wynberg station while I hopped out hurriedly to relieve myself in the platform urinal. Others used to wake me late at night when the train approached my station. Then one evening, years after ticket-examiners no longer patrolled coaches, I was mugged (I unclasped the fingers of my would-be strangler, who leapt off the train and fled). After that I went off suburban train travel.
The other morning, however, I did catch a train into the city and back, reassured by three security guards all having a good chat in the next compartment. I may have been safe, but the squalor, the graffiti and the grime made me reluctant to repeat the experience.
It was even worse than some of the Indian trains I’ve travelled on. To be fair, the train was dead on time, and I reached my destination.
Maybe I was luckier than Lucky.
He has confused the situation in another respect. He said he is not prepared to support any plan that transfers control of Metrorail in the Peninsula to the City Council.
Yet Transport Minister S’bu Ndebele had already announced that control would be transferred to the city. Then the mayoral committee member for transport, Brett Herron, said the city was not trying to take control of Metrorail. Yesterday another report said the desirability of the city controlling Metrorail in the Peninsula was being investigated.
If Cape Town rail commuters were bewildered before, they now have no idea what is going on, let alone whether they are likely to end up where they want to go.
They don’t really mind who runs the railways, so long as the operator does a better job than the present crowd. A guaranteed destination would be a good start.